Saturday, June 5, 2010

spearhead from space

10/5/10 “Spearhead from Space
“On this planet, there’s a saying: it’s never too late.” --The Doctor

I’ve gone on record many times as saying that the UNIT years really don’t do much for me, but slowly watching Pertwee from the beginning and going (as much as possible) in chronological order has done a lot to dispel my prejudices. In particular, this first story is tightly crafted, suspenseful, and gives us a charming, slightly barmy Doctor, a prickly scientist who still wears mini-skirts, and a strange bridge between 1960s and 1970s Doctor Who. I actually found very little with which to fault it; though undeniably “of its time,” it also has the timelessness that marks the best Doctor Who. Certainly both the TV Movie and “Rose” owe it a large debt as a good example of how to press the reset button with verve and narrative.

Jamie in fact notes that the very first shot, of Earth from space, is echoed in “Rose.” A meteorite shower, characterized by the recent heat wave, sees the newly regenerated Doctor falling out of the TARDIS and into the woods; I say this every time, but new Doctors look so strange in their predecessors’ clothes. Not realizing the Doctor has left it, the Brigadier orders the TARDIS guarded by UNIT men. A predecessor of Pigbin Josh encounters the corn puffs of doom (that must be the spearhead from space, I guess?). Bizarre muzak (or “special sounds”) are provided by Brian Hodgson as UNIT scientist Liz Shaw arrives. One of the biggest questions of the 1970 season of Doctor Who is where is Liz Shaw getting her fashion sense? Is it from the past, ie 1969 when this story was filmed? Or is the future, since the UNIT years are contentiously set in the 1980s? One could argue for both as her short skirts defy belief and link her more closely with Polly than Jo Grant, and yet in this story her hair definitely seems to be post-Princess Leia.
Received wisdom (and Barry Letts’ autobiography, for that matter) dictates that Liz Shaw was replaced because, as a scientist, she was the Doctor’s equal and made explanation through the plot difficult. Jamie has also suggested, with some accuracy, that Caroline John, despite the short skirts, was maybe not the most attractive of all the actresses to play a companion, and it is, alas, a requirement for the companions to be somehow attractive. Her character is a shock in this first story: her sarcasm and skepticism with the Brigadier and later the Doctor verge on the acidic. Being briefed on the function of UNIT, Liz remarks wryly, “you produce invisible ink and that sort of thing.” When the Brig explains that the function of UNIT is to “deal with the odd, the unexplained. Anything on Earth . . . or even beyond . . .” Liz makes a very good point. “Why is Earth any more likely to be invaded now than in the previous 55 million years?” The Brig counters this by adding the recent probe activity into space. When Liz’s harshness becomes too much, he says, “It’s not my habit to tell lies, Miss Shaw.”

Meanwhile, the poor collapsed Doctor has been found and brought to hospital. The perturbed medic thinks “someone in the x ray department is having a game!” when the Doctor’s x rays are revealed: “two hearts!” Anyone with the TV Movie burned into her consciousness (me) can’t help but react: it’s very similar to what Matthew Jacobs ended up with—“double exposure.” (Fortunately the Doctor doesn’t seem to feel like kissing Dr Beavis.) Sensitive to the Doctor’s strange physiology, the poor medic cries, “I don’t know if it makes me a doctor or a vet!” While the Doctor languishes in the hospital, nameless and amnesiac, a guy is randomly hoovering in a corridor. Actually, he isn’t: he’s about to alert the press to the UNIT investigation (and he’s Welsh!). When the press scent blood, the Brig gives them the silent treatment. This sequence, surprisingly effective with handheld film, combined with the new title sequence and, oh my gosh, color, really gives a new feel to this era of Who.

When the Doctor’s blood can’t be identified, the Brig comes to see the extraordinary patient. “He’s a complete stranger.” The Doctor then wakes up and asks for a mirror. “Oh no! That’s not me at all,” he says. It’s the first time we get the now-familiar routine of the new Doctor coming to terms with his (disappointing?) new appearance. “I don’t know,” he decides, “I think it’s [his nose] rather distinctive.” In another parallel with the TV Movie, the Doctor exclaims, “I must find my shoes!” “We don’t know what’s normal for him, do we?” The Doctor is acting both manic and Troughton-esque while at the same time displaying some of the deviousness of the First Doctor. The episode ends with him escaping from the hospital in a wheelchair!

With the Doctor recaptured, a plastics-worker named Ransome has returned from the US to find his place usurped at a factory that produces, shudder, baby dolls. The whole sequence in the factory reminded me of some Twilight Zone stories and, if anything, felt more ‘60s than ever. As Ransome gets the sense that his old partner is being controlled, he becomes less interested in getting his job back: “If there’s anything wrong, perhaps I can help you.” In the end, he is turned away and is not allowed into his storeroom where all his equipment is; Channing, the new star of the plastics factory, ensures his departure. Between this, the meteorite, and Liz Shaw, the Brig is at his wit’s end: “I deal with fact, not science fiction,” she says coolly, refusing to investigate the strange properties of the meteorites. “I’m not a fool, I don’t follow shadows,” says the exasperated Brig. Liz is frustrated because “I didn’t ask to come here.” It does make me wonder about Liz’s backstory, something that isn’t really addressed in her brief time on Doctor Who and in what scraps in other forms of Who media I’ve read, is only hinted at.

The Doctor makes another escape into the changing area of the hospital, where he takes the infamous shower and picks an outfit: a rather flamboyant cape from a visiting official (my favorite Pertwee costume) and a stylish Phantom-y fedora that he later discards. Looking at his face, he decides “It rather grows on you.” Barging back in on Liz and the Brig, he examines the fragment of plastic meteorite. Meanwhile an official visit to the plastics factory has revealed nothing out of the ordinary for the Brig’s superior, Major General Scobie, but when the disgruntled and curious Ransome returns to investigate, he’s in for a nasty shock: Autons! Now iconic, and indeed what RTD chose to reboot the scare factor in “Rose,” I have once again gone on record many times in saying that I had a hard time walking by mannequins in the mall when I was little because I feared them coming to life just as in Doctor Who (which means I must have seen “Spearhead” or “Terror of the Autons” when I was very small but I have no memory of the stories themselves).

Ransome manages to escape and finds his way to UNIT, trying to persuade them to investigate the plastics factory’s dark deeds. The jumpy soldiers guarding the TARDIS (and who accidentally shot the Doctor!) have brought the TARDIS back to UNIT HQ; the Pigbin Josh counterpart from the beginning has taken a meteorite home with him and hidden it in a trunk. When he considers going to UNIT for a reward, he leaves his wife at the mercy of the Autons. Being a good country woman, she naturally has a shotgun to defend herself. However, the Auton doesn’t seem to be affected by bullets—the first of the Brig’s alien menaces immune to bullets? Fortunately, she isn’t killed. But when Channing, who is in charge of whole Auton operation, orders “total destruction,” he means it.

The Doctor and Liz have “tried a dozen different tests” on the meteorite material, but when they pick up the one from the farm, the Doctor exclaims, “There’s some form of intelligence in that globe.” While the Doctor has agreed to help in this investigation (having proved that he is the Doctor), he does take advantage of Liz Shaw’s gullibility to try to run off in the TARDIS the first chance he gets. She is understandably annoyed at his having set her up, but he fails because, of course, the Time Lords have taken away his ability to pilot the TARDIS. “I’m sorry. The temptation was too strong, my dear.” The episode ends on an unerringly creepy note: General Scobie, deemed to be the easiest way into UNIT who Channing fears are investigating too deeply into the plastics factory, is greeted at his door by his own doppelganger. This is straight out of the annals of Gothic horror everywhere and makes a very effective episode ending.

In the final act, Channing reveals that the manifestation of the Nestene Consciousness—a rather horrific pulsating eye/brain in a box, which later has tentacles (!)—is nearly ready and that they are going to take over the world with their plastic replicas of important world figures. “Humans are difficult to predict.” This is one of my favorite moments of Doctor Who ever as the Doctor and Liz make a detour to Madame Tussaud’s! Total creepiness. I mean, that’s the great thing about wax: it’s almost lifelike, but it’s more akin to death-like. That’s why it’s fun but slightly unnerving to be a dark room full of wax dummies. The thought that they could come to life preys upon even the dullest imaginations.

The Doctor, in an attempt to stop the Autons, has Liz working around the clock. When the Autons make their iconic escape from shop windows and assault the unknowing populace with their hand guns, the production team pulls out all the stops. Of course, in contrast to the 2005 Autons, these look rather obviously like people in plastic masks. Still, their lurching, not-quite-human movements are the same and carry the same menace. The sequence doesn’t hold back in terms of carnage. The finale teems with explosions, the Doctor getting strangled by tentacles, Channing dissolving into plastic, and the Nestene being repelled back into space. As a coda, the Doctor is loathe to return to the old skool car he stole and feels a little guilty about the clothes he “borrowed.” He agrees to help the Brigadier and UNIT with Liz Shaw.

If Robert Holmes could read Autonomy, the Tenth Doctor book about the Autons, I wonder what he would think. Other than masterstroke for creating fear out of ordinary objects—for which Holmes and Steven Moffat both have an affinity—I wonder if Holmes intended any social critique upon monsters made of plastic. This being 1970, I think that could well be the case.

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